People drink horchata for different reasons. For some, it's a soothing, sweet beverage, consumed all by itself, or with a plate of Mexican food. For others, it is a replenishing elixir, consumed after last call, at a late-night taco truck, alongside a foil-wrapped burrito stuffed full of carne asada, grilled onions, and spicy red salsa. Throughout the world, there are different versions of the drink, but for this week's food fight, we are focusing on the much better known (in Los Angeles anyway) Mexican variety. Of course, regional versions vary a good bit too. At Oaxacan restaurant Pal Cabron for instance, the horchata comes with cactus flower syrup, and little bits of fruit and nuts.

But today, we are ignoring the topping-heavy stuff, and going for a simpler preparation. We began at the fiercely traditional and highly renowned La Casita Mexicana, out in the city of Bell. At first sip, their horchata can be a bit of a shock if you're used to the thicker, clunkier stuff most commonly found west of downtown, which tastes like a drinkable version of rice pudding. La Casita's was thinner, more delicate, and a bit more elegant. It was not overwhelmed with the flavors of cinnamon, and had light floral, and fruity undertones. After the first few sips, it may seem a bit tame, but once you settle into it, the subtle complexities come through. Should we punish La Casita for not serving their famed chilaquiles after noon? Probably not, though we're tempted.

Tinga's horchata; Credit: N. Galuten

Tinga's horchata; Credit: N. Galuten

For our second stop, we visited a rather different place. Tinga, on La Brea, serves their own personal twist on Mexican cuisine, and is also known to make very good aguas frescas. We have actually had their “dirty horchata” once before, which has an added shot of espresso (a damn fine idea). But their non-dirty horchata, we were surprised to find, was not so different from La Casita's after all. It was thinner than many (though not quite so thin as La Casita's), and had many of the same flavor notes to it, yet with a heftier spike of cinnamon. Ultimately though, while a rather pleasant version, it couldn't quite reach the levels of balance and grace found at La Casita Mexicana. Are we totally surprised? No. But if we're craving a caffeine kick to go with our horchata, we know where to go.

LA Weekly